A Cause Close to his Heart
With one of the longest running and most widely viewed broadcasts on television,
Larry King has outlasted many of the royals, presidents and movie stars who
have sat across his studio desk—more than 40,000 interviews in all.
The “Larry King Live” host is also one of the country’s most famous heart
patients and has made cardiac health a life mission.
Johnny Carson swung an imaginary golf club. Tom Snyder’s hearty guffaw was instantly recognizable. And Larry King just isn’t the same without his suspenders. Their broadcast signatures may be unique, but these three television personalities once shared a more pernicious characteristic as longtime cigarette smokers.
While Carson lost his battle with emphysema in 2005 and Snyder died from complications associated with leukemia last year, King has worked hard to beat the odds ever since his 1987 heart attack and subsequent quintuple bypass surgery.
King never imagined he would suffer a heart attack. He kept smoking even after he had been diagnosed with heart disease six years earlier. Heart disease was also in his family; King’s father died of it on the cusp of middle age.
King recalls a television commercial that Yul Brynner taped as the actor was dying from
lung cancer. In the posthumous commercial, Brynner implores: “Now that I’m gone, I tell
you: Don’t smoke. Whatever you do, just don’t smoke.” Brynner’s stark public service announcement remains gripping to this day, but King’s addiction was stronger. “When that commercial would come on I would change the channel rather than not smoke,” King tells Energy Times. “I never thought I’d have a heart attack. I thought I was invincible.”
King’s heart attack was his reality check. He quickly overhauled his lifestyle by embracing an exercise regimen and dispensing with his three-pack-a-day smoking habit and fettuccine alfredo or greasy lamb chop dinners. One year after his surgery, he turned his attention to other heart patients.
Built on the ambitious mission and theme “Save a Heart a Day,” the Larry King Cardiac Foundation (www.lkcf.org) has screened some 5,000 people for heart disease and picked up the tab for more than 500 uninsured heart patients who have needed bypass operations, stent placements, valve repairs, and defibrillator and pacemaker procedures by raising more than $10 million and partnering with hospitals and clinics.
A heart patient footing the bill entirely would ordinarily face costs of roughly $20,000 for a pacemaker and $70,000 for bypass surgery, says Larry King Jr., the foundation’s president. But medical facilities and their surgeons discount their beds and services on behalf of the foundation, while medical supply companies donate surgical materials. As a result, a surgery that would have cost the foundation, say, $35,000 costs roughly $12,000 instead.
The foundation is a family business of sorts. King’s wife, singer Shawn Southwick-King, is chairperson of the foundation that his son, a former software executive, runs. Larry King Jr. takes seriously the genetic implications of his father’s cardiac history; he’s cut fat from his diet, eats oatmeal daily and gets regular checkups. And while his father’s multi-pronged regimen of medicine and supplements has been dictated by serious cardiac issues including diabetes and hypertension, Larry King Jr. says he is approaching his health “more naturally” by tackling his cholesterol, for instance, with omega-3 supplements and a multivitamin.
At 74, the elder King has bucked the conventional wisdom in his life and career. Having interviewed the likes of Bobby Darin (his first celebrity interview) to Bobby DeNiro, King celebrated 50 years in broadcasting last year. He is nine years past the traditional age of retirement and the father of two school-age sons. And he has survived a disease that remains the biggest killer of Americans each year.
King spoke with Energy Times from Lubbock, Texas, where he was attending a ceremony marking the addition of the latest cardiac care facility to join his foundation’s network, the Covenant Health System and its Isom Heart Center pediatric hospital. The center was newly named after King’s west Texas-bred surgeon, Dr. O. Wayne Isom, who also performed David Letterman’s bypass surgery. The event was held about 20 years to the day of King’s quintuple bypass operation.
Energy Times: This must be a very poignant and moving day for you.
Larry King: It sure is. It’s very emotional, very thrilling. You pinch yourself. When my father died he was 44, 45 so I never expected to live past that. Then at age 53 to have a heart attack and then heart surgery and then to find yourself alive 20 years later, and I never would have dreamed I would be out in this remote part of Texas with my heart surgeon. It’s quite a ride. I pinch myself. You really can’t believe it.
ET: Dr. Isom has called you the poster boy for post-heart disease lifestyle change.
LK: I had no interest in health prior to my heart attack, so I smoked, ate the wrong foods and never exercised. I never paid attention when threats would come on; I was an avoider. Then the day I got the heart attack in February of ’87 I really got a lesson. I got scared stiff and stopped smoking that day. I got onto a pretty good exercise regimen, I watched what I ate, I lost weight and I maintained that. I’ve weighed 152 for many years now. I don’t exercise as much as I used to. The regimen of exercise gets harder. I used to go on a treadmill for a half-hour to 45 minutes a day with some bicycle, and now it’s some bicycle, some treadmill. Now I do it every other day. But I do a lot of walking and I take care of myself. This is very important and can’t be denied: The modern medications I take are extraordinary. Modern medicines, I believe, combined with a good lifestyle, have kept me alive. I take a lot of supplements. I take [garlic]. I take vitamin E, vitamin C, a multi-vitamin, I take coQ10 and I take omega-3 fish oil.
ET: What is your daily diet like?
LK: Breakfast is my key meal, dinner is secondary to that and lunch is almost an afterthought. For breakfast I might have a scooped-out bagel with a little piece of Nova Scotia fish or I might have Cheerios or a corn muffin. I have a very light lunch, a fruit plate, salad, and for dinner I’ll have meat once in a while, fish once in a while and often salads. A lot of my appetite has been lost; I guess the less eating you do, your stomach shrinks and you don’t get as hungry. Maybe this is part of aging. I used to eat a lot of breads; I rarely eat bread. Sometimes I will let myself go. I was in New York recently and on my birthday my brother took me to a very famous Jewish restaurant on the Lower East Side of New York. They have every known bad food in the world. In fact they give you [sodium bicarbonate for indigestion] when you leave. I really ate a lot there, so I ate less for the next three days. Now I wouldn’t smoke. In fact, one night I had a dream that I smoked; I went nuts. I got up and I was so mad at myself until I realized it was a dream. I do think that if I smoked I would start smoking again because I liked smoking. So I’m very health conscious, I’m very pain conscious. If I get any pain I call the doctor, and I never used to do that. I’m not a hypochondriac but I’m very aware. That’s why I started this foundation. I felt that I got a pass through all this and still feel I got a pass, but insurance paid for my whole thing.
ET: How did you make the connection to the working poor and helping people with no health insurance? That happened before the general political discourse on our health insurance problems.
LK: It happened simply; I was sitting around a year after my surgery with some friends in a restaurant in Washington, and someone asked what my surgery cost. I had no idea; I was fully insured. I got to thinking about people who aren’t covered. I figured a lot of people weren’t insured. I had no idea about the statistics and no idea that we were a precursor to something that would occur on a major scale nationally with health care. But I do remember Harry Truman in 1948 proposing national health insurance and getting laughed at. I think we’re the only multi-tiered nation of its kind without health insurance. That’s a blight on us. There’s no reason there should be a Larry King Cardiac Foundation.
ET: In your book Taking On Heart Disease, you discuss how you never thought you would have to worry about cardiac health. Our readers are pretty health savvy, but the average American probably feels the same way you did. Why is there that pervasive disconnect from reality and the consequences of an unhealthy lifestyle? How do you get people to take this seriously before their health becomes a crisis?
LK: That’s a great question. Hopefully we’re improving in that regard. In fact, I know we are because heart attacks are down in America. So we are making some impact just as we’ve cut cigarette smoking in half in America. I think the more you educate, the more you harp at people. . .you know who does it, the children. There’s an obesity problem with children, but also there’s a vast group of children who look around and say, “Why are you eating that?” I think what happens is that the desire for longevity, the emphasis on health, the medical programs, the cable shows that deal with health and the discussions about heart patients get drummed into the public until you have to say, “My God, I’m crazy not to do something about my heart,” and take care of it. Of course, the best way to take care of your heart is preventative. But preventative medicine, by the way, has never really been a big thing in America until probably the last ten years. We’re not a good prevention anything. We don’t pre-plan our cities well enough, so we have infrastructure problems. Philip Wylie, the great author who wrote Generation of Vipers, once told me the reason you’ll never sell America on environmentalism or pre-planning health is that the human being knows he’s going to die, and because he knows he’s going to die he takes it as a presumption that he can’t do anything about it. Since he can’t do anything about it he desires immortality. He can’t get immortality so he doesn’t take care of anything. He just lives for the minute. There’s probably some truth in that, but I think we’re overcoming that.
ET: Maybe kids are health-conscious because unhealthy behavior used to be the norm but is the exception today, at least when it comes to smoking. Kids don’t have that negative standard to compare behavior against; you rarely see people smoking these days.
LK: I’ll give you an example. When I broke into radio in 1957 and television in 1960 everybody smoked. Everybody—the engineers, everybody on the air. Remember I smoked on the air, Johnny Carson smoked on the air, everybody smoked. Now I don’t know anyone at CNN that smokes.
You’re not allowed to smoke; you can’t have a job. I don’t see anybody smoke and 40 years ago everybody smoked. Credit for that goes to C. Everett Koop, the former surgeon general, and to the former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, Joe Califano. The tobacco industry used to have billboards against him. Koop did it when he issued that report and said smoking kills you. By the way, that didn’t thrill the president at the time, because you know politicians have to think about that Virginia vote and that North Carolina vote, which now seems insane.
ET: It’s got to be very difficult to face the reality of a possible heart problem.
LK: You don’t want to face it. Right now I would say if you have a chest pain you go to the hospital. In fact you call 911. If you’re close to a hospital, get there. So what if you’re wrong, so what if it’s indigestion. Big deal. Wouldn’t you like to know it? I know some people who say, “Well, I don’t want to put the ambulance out.” That’s what they’re there for.
ET: Your book is full of stories about celebrities and their cardiac health experiences. Who has inspired you the most or provided the most valuable lesson relating to your own heart health?
LK: I don’t know that I could pick one. My attention to my heart was self-induced. I didn’t take care of myself at all, so it took my own pain, my own fear and my own anxiety. I appreciate all the stories, and they’re vast, but I don’t have any one that had an effect on me.
ET: I want to ask you about stress and anger, which obviously are not good for cardiac health. That doesn’t seem to be an issue for you. You seem so good-natured. You certainly don’t get angry on your show.
LK: No I don’t. But the stress, I’m not good in traffic jams. I’m not good at delays. I’m not good at things that don’t go right. At work I’m fine, but in life, life’s little dumb things I don’t handle well. I’m a type A personality and I’ve been told many times to go to these treatment places where they teach you how to handle your stress. Maybe I thrive on it, but I can’t give good advice on that. I do not handle it well.
ET: On the subject of attitude, you’ve referred to what you called the terror leading up to your surgery and the episodes of depression that came after it. How does someone with heart disease cope mentally? Heart disease never leaves the body. How do you work through that?
LK: You always have heart disease. If you have it, you have it all your life. The depression is very common after surgery. It usually lasts about a month. You get weak periods. This doctor touched and held your heart. This is the only person in your life that ever touched your heart. The song isn’t “I left My Brain in San Francisco.” So the heart is emotional. It’s Valentine’s Day. It’s all those things we associate, and we realize the fragility of it so we get depressed. But that generally goes away.
ET: You had a carotid artery procedure some months ago. Of course that’s not as intrusive and involved as bypass surgery, but did you feel more prepared mentally for that?
LK: Very much. I handled it well. I wasn’t afraid of it. It was a 70% clogged blockage in my right artery in the neck. The doctor explained to me it’s fairly simple surgery. They went in, they took out the thing. They did it overnight, I was out the next day, and I didn’t miss any work. They checked the artery on the left side, and that was fine. They check that every three months. But everybody should have the carotid artery test. It’s a simple test; they just run the thing on your neck. It’s a little machine that makes a little noise. There’s no pain and it tells you how much blockage you have, and if there is blockage they take it out. That’s another miracle, that they take it out. That blockage is a precursor to a stroke.
ET: Many people are said to be more productive after heart surgery. Why do you think that is, and what have you been able to accomplish that has surprised you?
LK: I was surprised that I kept on doing what I kept on doing. I kept on doing radio and television and went back to it quickly. By the way, I have more stamina than I’ve ever had. I don’t require a lot of sleep, six hours a night. I don’t tire easily, and I feel good most of the time. I don’t get sick and I have a good attitude about health. I think it’s a combination of all those things.
ET: You went back to work pretty quickly after your quintuple bypass surgery.
Why do you think your recovery was so fast?
LK: Because I had a good attitude. I was pessimistic going in, and once I opened my eyes and I was alive I was a trooper. I was a great patient. I did everything the doctors told me. I was so happy to be alive. It was a flip.
ET: You’ve pointed out that what comforts one heart patient isn’t going to work for another. You visit or call every patient that your foundation helps, so what are you able to tell them since everyone finds hope in different places?
LK: The first call is before the surgery. Usually we try to get one of those in. Either my son makes it or I make it or my wife makes it. They’re just thrilled that we’re going to help them. They know that they’re going to get their surgery, and after it 99% do well because this surgery is kind of a miracle. They got it in time, and the doctors are experts so 99% do well. I haven’t run into one person who said, “I feel worse” or “Boy, this didn’t go well.”
ET: So your encouraging words are that people pull through this.
LK: We’ve lost one patient in all the years. Keep on keeping on and you will do well, and I could say that confidently.